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Cromwell is depicted here in a classical guise, far removed from the many portraits showing him in military dress or as a starched-collared Puritan. Classical drapery falls in folds about his shoulders and a laurel wreath, a symbol of victory in the ancient world, adorns the loose curls on his head. The naturalism of the sagging folds of skin around his cheeks echoes Roman Republican ‘veristic’ portraits, in which the features and flaws of the sitter are reproduced accurately, or even exaggerated, to give an impression of wisdom gained through age and experience.
The Grand Tour was an important factor in the widespread popularity of neo-classicism and many gentlemen travellers demanded classical art on their return. The portrait bust was also at its most fashionable in the 18th century, with many affluent homes included a display of busts.
This work, made many years after Cromwell’s death, may have been sculpted using the sitter’s death mask. It has been suggested that it is by neo-classical sculptor Joseph Wilton. Although there are similar busts showing Cromwell in classical drapery and a laurel wreath in private collections, this work appears to be the superior, primary version on which the others are based.
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